How the US-Houthi face-off could open a new chapter of chaos in Yemen
Early on Friday, the two key backers of Israel internationally, the United States and the United Kingdom, launched airstrikes on dozens of locations across several Yemeni provinces, reportedly targeting air defence systems, logistical hubs, and arms depots.
Another US airstrike on Saturday targeted a Houthi radar site, according to the US military’s Central Command.
The purpose of the US-UK strikes was to "degrade" the military capabilities of the Iran-backed Houthi group, which has launched over 26 attacks on ships in the Red Sea since seizing the Israeli-linked Galaxy Leader vessel in November, in what the group says is in solidarity with Palestinians in Gaza.
"The Houthis feel the time is ripe for a battle with US forces, given that US warships are easily within the range of their missiles. Plus, the group now enjoys unprecedented popular support in Yemen"
The strikes killed five Houthi soldiers and wounded six others, according to the Houthi-run media. On Sunday, the US military said it had shot down a missile fired at one of its warships near the coast of Hodeidah.
A country devastated by civil war from 2015 until 2022, Yemen today appears to have entered a new era of violence. While the Houthis have displayed reckless courage in attacks that have impacted global trade, their foreign opponents, including the US, will be unlikely to maintain self-restraint if they continue.
Houthi officials responded to US and British strikes by saying they "will not go without a response". These Houthi threats are not empty; a review of their behaviour and statements over the past few weeks demonstrates that actions often follow their pledges.
A US-Houthi face-off in the Red Sea begins
On 19 November, the Houthis succeeded in seizing the Israeli-linked ship Galaxy Leader with the help of a helicopter and small boats. Houthi fighters on four boats attempted to take over the Maersk container ship on 31 December, but their plan misfired after US forces responded to a distress call from the vessel.
An attack from a US helicopter sank three Houthi boats, killing 10 crewmen, marking the first collision between the Houthis and Americans in the Red Sea.
Hours after the clash, the Houthi military spokesperson held the US responsible for the "consequences and repercussions of this crime". The group said the reply to such American "aggression" would inevitably come.
The 10 Houthi deaths in the Red Sea were the beginning of what could become an intractable US-Houthi conflict, with reprisal likely the only option for the Yemeni group.
On 9 January, the Houthis fired a barrage of drones and missiles towards US warships. "The operation came as an initial response to the treacherous attack on our naval forces by the American enemy forces on Sunday [31 December]," Houthi spokesperson Yahya Sarea said.
The US Central Command confirmed the attack, saying the Houthis "will bear the consequences." Just two days later, the US and UK launched their strikes.
"Yemen-related peace talks will be marginalised should the US-Houthi face-off magnify, and the country will slide anew into chaos"
The Houthi hope for a battle
The killing of 10 Houthi fighters on 31 December in the Red Sea and the US-UK airstrikes on sites in Yemen have set the stage for more violence, while presenting a powerful impetus for the Houthis to continue their operations.
There are indications from statements that the Houthi group has been longing for a direct war with the US for years.
"We ask all Arab countries and all those who were directed by the Americans in the past …to leave the Americans to enter into a direct war with us, and to abandon us to be in a direct war with the Israeli foe," Houthi movement chief Abdelmalek Al-Houthi said on 20 December.
The group feels the time is ripe for a battle with US forces, given that US warships are easily within the range of their missiles. Plus, the group now enjoys unprecedented popular support in Yemen.
In recent weeks, tens of thousands of people have joined Houthi-organised public demonstrations, boosting the Houthi camp, with many likely to follow their directives if a larger-scale war breaks out. With an abundance of fighters, the group could endure a prolonged war.
Rashid Mohammed, a 28-year-old resident of Hodeidah province, told TNA that thousands of fighters have arrived in the city, which overlooks the Red Sea. "Such a mobilisation has not happened before in this coastal city," he said.
The Houthis have been viewed negatively in the eyes of many Yemenis over the last decade, he said, with many even likening the group to a "satan".
"However, its support for Palestinians in Gaza made us proud, and multitudes of people have put aside the Houthi downsides and joined the group. This will help deepen its rule in Yemen and magnify its influence in the region."
Fragile peace at risk
The US military action in Yemen could be a recipe for turning the Gaza war into a regional conflict. Though US officials say they seek no confrontation with any country or actor in the Middle East, they consider Houthi attacks in shipping lanes in the Red Sea as hard to condone.
US National Security Council spokesman John Kirby said on 3 January at the White House that Washington will not "shrink from the task of defending ourselves, our interests, our partners, or the free flow of international commerce".
With the Houthis determined to launch more attacks in the Red Sea, Yemen’s fragile peace is at risk.
"2024 will not be as calm as last year. The Houthis are ready for war and are not reluctant to escalate their operations"
The civil war began in 2015 and has caused one of the worst humanitarian tragedies in the world. Over the past two years, the UN and regional actors, including Oman and Saudi Arabia, have attempted to end the conflict.
The fighting in Yemen paused in April 2022 after a UN-sponsored truce took effect, yet the ongoing tensions in the Red Sea risk inflaming a new escalation in Yemen.
The UN special envoy for Yemen, Hans Grundberg, outlined a peace roadmap on 7 January, which would be based on the commitments of the Yemeni government and the Houthi group.
"In order to achieve [peace], we will need an environment that remains conducive for sustaining constructive dialogue around the future of Yemen," Grundberg said.
But since the rise of tensions in the Red Sea, there has been no such environment for constructive negotiations.
A politics professor in Houthi-controlled Sanaa, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, told TNA that Yemen appears to be on the verge of losing its fragile peace process.
“2024 will not be as calm as last year. The Houthis are ready for war and are not reluctant to escalate their operations," they said.
"Yemen-related peace talks will be marginalised should the US-Houthi face-off magnify, and the country will slide anew into chaos."
The writer is a Yemeni journalist, reporting from Yemen, whose identity we are protecting for their security.